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June 20, 2024
Poultry & Livestock Review Africa

From Nigeria’s farmer-herder clashes to the Sahel crisis — is climate change worsening conflicts in Africa?

Villagers were retiring for the day on January 10, 2018, in the Kasayo community, Guma LGA of Benue state, when they began hearing gunshots. The shootings startled the entire community and left everyone running for their lives.

Thirty-five-year-old Philip Unartse, a farmer, was among those who fled with his family of four when the attack began.

Unartse suspects his community was attacked by herders who were agitated because of the state government’s open grazing prohibition law enacted in 2017. This law prohibits herders from grazing their livestock openly, but to rather adopt ranching. This law was met with criticism from pastoralist associations who vowed to resist it.

“Our land is very good for grazing. That is why they want to erase us and take over the land so they would be grazing there,” he claims.


After the incident, Unartse’s family lost their home. They currently live in an internally displaced persons (IDP) Camp in Abagana, Makurdi, the capital of Benue state. He recounts how his community has been dominated by herdsmen.

“There is nobody in my community now, as we speak. All you see there now are herders grazing with their cattle,” he said.

Unartse’s plight is similar to the one faced by thousands of farmers and herders alike in Nigeria’s middle belt region who have been adversely affected by the farmer-herder crisis.

This wave of tit-for-tat violence has killed about 3,600 people between 2016 and 2018 and displaced hundreds of thousands. The country also loses $13.7 billion annually as a result.

A pastoralist settlement in Agole community, Makurdi, Nigeria. Photo: Chukwudi Njoku

What is happening in Nigeria’s Benue state is commonplace in Africa. Some researchers have described the conflicts as after-effects of climate change.

Climatic impacts such as drought and desertification have caused the depletion of resources in Nigeria’s northern region. This forces herders out of their northern original environment towards the south, where there are richer pastures and water resources.

Studies suggest that this movement of the herders in search of pasture and water for their livestock brings them in collision with farming communities. These farming communities often complain that the cattle damage their crops while the pastoralists complain that their dedicated grazing routes have been overtaken by farmers and sometimes their cows are either rustled or killed.

Although Africa is not among the largest contributors to global warming, it is one of the areas most impacted by climate change.

According to research, Africa produces an average of just over one metric ton of carbon dioxide per person every year. This is very low when compared to certain countries of the world. For instance, the US produces 15 metric tons per person, as shown in the 2018 Statista report.

The main reason for the severity of climate impact in Africa is that most countries’ economies depend on rain-fed agriculture and natural resources. Therefore, events affecting and depleting the land such as flood or drought affects the population adversely.

Farmers also lack the resources to effectively battle these impacts. But climate change also comes with severe societal consequences of which climate wars are not an exception.

A community made desolate by the farmer-herder crisis, Wukari, Taraba State, Nigeria. Photo: Chukwudi Njoku

The social consequences of climate change include the farmer-herder crisis in Nigeria and the conflicts in the central Sahelian countries of Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali. These countries are largely considered to be environmentally fragile and impoverished.

Experts believe that global warming has increased temperature in the region and led to a reduction of resources. This has consequently affected agricultural production, created unsuitable grazing lands, increased poverty, and fostered violence in the region.

Before that, the Sahelian droughts of the 1970s and 1980s greatly impacted the Sahel leaving its countries impoverished and lacking in resources for many years. This further severed the relationship between farmers and herders.

“The exacerbating factor is that [pastoralists] are moving south to areas that are more humid and have more grass for their cattle. And as they migrate, there is increased pressure on resources, this causes conflict,” said Ignatius Madu, a professor of geography at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

“The conflict is linked to climate change mainly in terms of resource control: land and water. The southward movement is a means of adaptation to climate change and this results in internal conflicts.”


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2018 report on Africa states that climate change and climate variability have the potential to exacerbate or multiply existing threats to human security.

The report stated that natural resources are depleted as a result of both overexploitation and climate change. In turn, this contributes to increased conflicts over the distribution of resources.

Scarcity and competition of resources occasioned by climate change are mostly cited as the conflicts’ primary root. A report on Mali by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies argues that the violence is primarily rooted in competition for scarce resources needed to sustain economic livelihoods.

A United Nations (UN) report shows that the insecurity occasioned by climate change is affecting the international community and “exacerbating existing risks to international peace and security”. Thus, “swift climate actions” are needed to forestall further insecurity.

The report states that across sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, climate-driven population displacement could reduce regional stability. Also in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, the effects of climate change are already deepening grievances and escalating the risk of conflict. According to the document, this “provid[es] fodder for extremist groups”.

The UN believes that climate change is a major “threat multiplier”, which increases already fragile situations and contributes to further social tensions.


But Cletus Nwankwo cautioned that scientists and analysts shouldn’t be hasty to generalise that climate change causes conflict. Nwankwo is a University of Nigeria lecturer and a PhD student at the University of Leicester’s department of geography, geology and environment.

He argues that the impacts of climate change as typified by drought and desertification can influence migration. However, it does not “automatically” lead to conflict.

“Issues beyond environmental factors such as identities, values and land ownership can play significant roles in explaining how climate change engenders conflict,” Nwankwo continued.

Meanwhile, research has shown that pastoralists use migration as a coping strategy to the changing climatic conditions which could eventually lead to conflict.


Climate scientists like Madu and Nwankwo say that in order to address these conflicts attributed to climate change, the pastoralists need to be well educated. In addition, agricultural practices such as the use of irrigation for drylands need to be modernised.

Moreover, the researchers believe that old pastoralist cattle rearing methods should be discarded. Modern means of animal husbandry such as ranching should be adopted too, according to Madu and Nwankwo.

Meanwhile, Bala Ardo, the secretary of the Fulani community in Nigeria’s south-eastern state of Enugu, argues that pastoralist communities are not opposed to modern means of animal husbandry. But they lack enough education, a standard model to imitate from, and an enabling environment to encourage them to modernise their practices.

Ardo says that for a shift towards modernization of practice, the pastoralists need the right education and orientation.

“The pastoralists need to be educated for them to understand the importance of ranching rather than moving from one community to the other. They need to be shown how to practice ranching. If not they won’t abandon their old way,” Ardo said.

He also advises that the government should reclaim the grazing reserves, – land acquired by the government, developed and set aside for pastoralists – equip it with earth dams, and build schools around it so that the cattle herders will have a settlement that caters to them and their cattle needs.

In their report, the International Crisis Group recommends that government policies in the central Sahel that have long benefited sedentary farmers at the expense of nomadic herders should be corrected. And that states should adopt new solutions that reconcile the interests of different systems of production.

Governments are making efforts to curtail the violence. In Nigeria, for instance, the federal government has recently disclosed, in what it termed “a permanent solution to the farmer-herder crisis”, the mapping out of 30 grazing reserves. This is for the implementation of the National Livestock Transformation Plan under its Green Initiative project.

While making this disclosure, Andrew Kwasari, the senior special assistant to the president on Agriculture pleaded with states to accept the scheme. He pointed out that it will help “modernise livestock and crop production and remove conflict”.

But it is yet known how this plan will be accepted. In 2018 a similar proposed cattle colonies scheme – an initiative intended to help forestall the crisis by allocating land to cattle herders for pastures – was met with a lot of criticism. Among others, southern leaders feared that the scheme aimed to dominate their lands and gain power.

Meanwhile, Madu believes that there is more that could be done to forestall the crisis. He advises that the governments should make efforts towards “poverty alleviation, educating the people, and provision of good infrastructure”.

On his part, Nwankwo encourages governments to monitor ecological funds released to tackle climate change impacts. He also says that since transhumance is commonplace among African countries. The continent needs to set up certain frameworks to discourage hostility in local communities.

“A trans-regional mechanism needs to be developed that would permit peaceful co-existence between pastoralists and local communities across the west and central African regions. Countries should synergise to expand on already existing frameworks to accommodate vulnerable pastoralists,” Nwankwo said.

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